In other respects Villa-Lobos’s music at this time reflected something of a prevailing mood of savagery, such as is contained, even momentarily, in Le Sacre du Printemps, Percy Grainger’s The Warriors and Holst’s The Planets, or even Copland’s Grohg—a group of works, by no means exhaustive or wholly representative, which contain those elements of primitivism we can observe in Villa-Lobos’s output. However, this is not to suggest that Rudepoema is anything other than an original work, but merely to place it in its historical context in the Paris of the mid-1920s. Of the composers mentioned, it is perhaps Milhaud whose work at this time is more strongly recalled in Rudepoema, both technically in its polytonality and equally inherently, if more superficially, in the South American primitivism of the work—what Wilfrid Mellers has aptly called ‘the savage state’, a state, as we can observe in parts of Charles Ives’s contemporaneous work, not confined to uncivilised man.
One must also recall that this immediate post-war period saw a greater concentration upon the exploration of older, prehistoric civilisations, more notably in the middle east but equally in the Americas—particularly Latin America. This return (no doubt a reaction in some ways to the disastrous horrors with which the European war had confronted modern civilised man) to prehistoric roots can be found reflected in other aspects of modern art of the day: Rudepoema is nothing if not a product of its time. But this astonishing score is far more than that. Technically, as a reasonably lengthy one-movement work for solo piano, it is one of the most difficult pieces ever written, but its difficulty is not some challenge thrown out to the pianist who would essay it, a kind of fearful puzzle to be solved—every scrap of the piano writing has its place in the overall musical scheme of things. Those contemporary factors upon which Villa-Lobos drew as his material took shape were but one aspect of world art music in the early 1920s—it was, in this case, the paradoxical expression of unbridled phantasmagoria allied to a highly developed sense of organic creativity—but it was a new language, wholly necessary in Villa-Lobos’s case, given his powerful creative personality and the heady mixture of an intense native (South American) music fused with a foreign (Iberian-European) style.
There is another, pianistic aspect of the piece. Villa-Lobos said it represents a musical portrait of its dedicatee, Arthur Rubinstein, whom the composer met in Rio in 1918, and who played an important role in persuading Villa-Lobos to study in Paris some years later. Those who knew Rubinstein well in his later years may find it difficult to see how this civilised and urbane musician is reflected in this barnstorming score; but this is merely to hear and see things on the surface. Even into his late eighties, Rubinstein possessed immense energy; his natural grace and style may have endeared him to fashionable society, but here was a pianist who technically had no peer, who knew what he could do well and what he could not, and concentreated upon the former, bringing to his interpretation of music with which he enjoyed a particular empathy the highest degree of sophistication and understanding. Yet his performances remained the product of an artist of unflagging powers. Rubinstein made his last public appearance, in London in May 1976, at the age of 89—and the very last piece of music he played in public was by Villa-Lobos. We who were there should not have been surprised.
Rudepoema falls into a number of sections, but is a continuous single-movement work. The overall structure of the piece, despite the density of the harmonic and rhythmic language, is quite straightforward, and combines elements of continuous melodic variation with vestigial traces of sonata, the whole harmonically adhering to its own rules which are necessarily the opposite of those of traditional functional harmony. Equally, the fluid yet sectionalised construction of the piece deliberately seems to thwart our expectations, and yet does so with such compelling interest as to reveal itself as an important virtuoso masterpiece, exceptional for its time and place, held together by following a moderate rate of harmonic change.
The straightforward nature of the construction of Rudepoema is as follows. The work opens with a simple four-note idea, almost as a slow tango, which soon expands très sauvage in dynamic and texture to a big animé climax that, as it dies down, reveals a six-note idea, dimly perceived in the treble. A secondary idea (not, in sonata terminology, the second subject) ‘reflects’ this before a third idea, based upon repeated notes, builds again to a climax, with the six-note theme much clearer. The mood changes, un peu calme, and a genuine second subject appears—but this is both derived from the six-note theme and is more flexibly slower, also characterised by repeated notes. This concludes what might be considered a relatively straightforward sonata exposition. Tonally, we have thus far had a first group centred upon F sharp, C sharp, D sharp and A sharp, latterly becoming B flat-E flat for the second subject.
The vast central section of the work—what is, in effect, a double development in two tempos—gets under way, recalling the lighter scherzando aspects of the opening, but (also as before) becoming denser and exhibiting an extraordinary feeling of inner growth, founded upon deep pedal points which emanate from the exposition’s tonal regions, and with a coruscating amalgam of ostinato, animation, fisty tonal clusters and rhythmic élan that grows with cumulative power, relaxing but momentarily, and accompanied by repeated chords to the sudden emergence of a three-note idea (whose provenance is clear): E, G, D—fff but unaccompanied. This heralds the end of the first part of the development; now the second, much slower (Modéré presque lent) part unfolds, the material refracted in newer tonal regions—A, G, E and D, musing in a Rousseau-cum-Gauginesque atmospheric scene that initially falls to a low D before powerful cadenza-like clusters induce a hypnotic ostinato that in turn leads to the final section of the work. This is no recapitulation as such, but reveals the six-note theme as an expansion of the ‘first’ and ‘second’ subjects alongside virtuosic chordal decoration before the passion of Rudepoema abates, falling to a tonal grouping of pianissimo low E major, A minor (with the supertonic) and C major chords. Is the harmonic basis in fact B—the dominant of E, the supertonic of A, the leading note of C and the tonic of the very opening F sharp? If so, the ‘Savage Poem’ has virtually hidden it from our perception—which can only be that of a different culture, observing the roots from which this remarkable masterpiece has sprung.
from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 2000